“Alternative” and “space” used to be joined at the hip in the context of artist run and other non-commercial venues of the 1970s and ’80s. Conceived as counterpoints both to commercial galleries and to the institutional baggage of established museums, they focused on work that was pushing the envelope. Overtly political gestures intersected with experimental forms that emphasized conceptual approaches as well as a range of non-traditional media. Freedom from commodification was not just a temporary accident of obscurity but a sought-after condition.
Yet one of the operative conditions of “alternative” is constant motion. Idealistic organizations that managed to persevere have become institutions in their own right—often producing interesting programming still, but far less nimble once they become reliant on boards and fundraising drives. Even more significantly, much that previously operated at the margins of the art world has been embraced and absorbed, leaving little that truly resists being sold, collected, or taught in academies.
So what is the function of the alternative sphere? Is it simply the research and development arm of the established art world, a zone of vitality and experimentation where the most successful ventures will eventually wind up being historicized and monetized? It is important to keep asking what we expect from art, since the answers will help us decide whether our aspirations are well served by the remarkably expansive network of institutions and commercial entities devoted to promoting and disseminating contemporary art.
Another possibility is that the category of art should not be treated as infinitely useful or elastic. Seemingly, the label can be claimed for almost any type of gesture, whether object-based or intangible, aesthetic, or political. To a certain extent, calling something art can help facilitate its visibility and distribution. But in the process, ephemeral work has been professionalized and institutional critique has morphed into artists acting as roving consultants. Despite the involvement of many artists, last year’s Occupy movement did not rely on the label of art to describe its spatial, temporal, or visual strategies. Perhaps the vitality of the future will be found in creative interventions that don’t attempt to use the art world, including its margins, as a platform for social change.
MARTHA BUSKIRK is the author of Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace (Continuum, 2012).